By the time you get to the end of Leg One of your New Zealand motorhome tour, you’ll be left wondering what could possibly come close to meeting the bar it set - and wondering if there’s anything else left to see in the country. You’ll spend time exploring New Zealand’s biggest city before heading off to see the country’s most famous movie set, as well as thousands of sparkly little glowworms that will leave you with a sore neck from staring upwards and a sense of awe from watching them shine. The rest of the leg is as much about relaxation as it is about adrenaline, with an even mix of the two throughout the country’s geothermal capital in Rotorua and New Zealand’s largest lake at Taupo. Prepare for a wild and wonderful ride - and don’t forget, this is only the first leg!
There are a roughly 1.4 million people living in Auckland, but every year, roughly double that number pay a visit to see this thriving, enchanting city. Sprawling across the sail-dotted harbour, Auckland city is an Aladdin’s Cave for travellers - you’ve got sights, attractions, history, nature, wildlife, food and drink, adrenalin adventures and relaxing experiences all at your fingertips. So where do you start? If you’re looking to tick off the major tourist attractions, the first place to go is the Sky Tower. This iconic structure is the tallest in the country, and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. Take the elevator to the top, wander around the 360-degree viewing area, dine in the rotating restaurant, or even pump up the adrenaline and jump off the edge in a controlled fall back to the ground. Another of the must-dos in this city is the Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium. It’s just a short bus ride from the CBD or a quick drive, and this underground aquarium is full of incredible creatures such as penguins, sharks, turtles and all kinds of fish - you can even opt for a shark dive for an unforgettable experience. The other major structure in the city is the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and it’s important to note that there is no access for pedestrians, so you can either drive across for great views of the city and harbour, or take a tour with Auckland Harbour Bridge Climb to get up in the bridge itself. Those with kids (or just a love of adrenaline) should head to the Rainbow’s End fun park, and check out the Auckland Zoo, where you can even see a rare New Zealand kiwi bird. And before you leave the city, take a ferry ride out to Waiheke Island, which is also known as the country’s ‘Island of Wine’ for it’s array of world-class wineries. Obviously, there’s rather a lot to do in Auckland, so allow a few days at minimum to visit its best attractions!
When you leave Auckland, head south on State Highway 1 (make a stop in Pokeno for some of the best ice cream on the planet), then turn off shortly before Hamilton to SH39.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are one of New Zealand’s most awe-inspiring experiences - and that’s truly saying something. The Arachnocampa luminosa (glow worm) only exists in New Zealand, and when you visit these caves you’ll see thousands of them lighting up the ceiling like stars on a particularly clear night, only they’re just metres away from you as you drift below on a gentle boat ride. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the range of tour options will give you plenty of choice when checking out these exquisite little creatures.
Your next destination is one that you’ll have likely already seen more than once on film - the endlessly charming Hobbiton. You’ll have to backtrack north on SH3 to get there, but the slight detour is well worth the drive (plus, it adds another stretch of awesome New Zealand scenery to your trip, too). Back in the late 1990s, film director Peter Jackson flew over a piece of land in Matamata and decided it was perfect as a setting for hobbit holes in his upcoming film series, The Lord of the Rings. It would then take three years to build an access road, create no fewer than 37 hobbit homes, grow gardens and trees, and generally create this little village. Today, you can tour this township to see this beautiful collection of hobbit holes, as well as the Green Dragon Inn and Mill. Of course, part of the tour is a complimentary drink from the Southfarthing range in the inn, and you can also enjoy a themed meal at this restaurant.
Shortly after Hobbiton, direct your wheels to the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park. This outdoor space is more than 70 kilometres long and is the perfect place to park up for a while and get out to explore on your own two feet, as it’s something of a hiker’s paradise. With more than 300 kilometres of walking tracks and endless forests of native trees, you could spend days exploring the area. For two of the best hikes, walk from the Te Aroha Domain up to the summit of Mount Te Aroha (less than a kilometre), or try the Waitawheta Track (7.5 kilometres), which will take you through kauri country and up to an old sawmill with a crossing over a huge suspension bridge. For more walking track information, pick up a brochure from one of the many huts throughout the park.
Head back to the road, following SH28 before turning onto SH5 towards Rotorua.
Even for New Zealand, Rotorua is something of a special place. This whole town is situated on a geothermal area, which is the basis for many of its best attractions. The Polynesian Spa is where you will go to make the most of the hot spring action in Rotorua, as it offers everything from relaxing hot pool access, to spa therapies such as massages, facials and mud baths. The Tamaki Maori Experience is another fantastic attraction, as this is where you can experience Maori culture with a look around a traditional Maori village, a performance and a hangi (feast). You can even stay overnight in the Marae to get the full experience of New Zealand’s native peoples. As a city on a lake, there are plenty of watersport activities to indulge in, and you can easily spend an afternoon simply wandering around the bubbling, steaming Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Reserve Park, and watching the incredible geysers shoot off jets of steam. Take the Skyline gondola to the top of Mt. Ngongotaha, then zoom down the hill again on the luge track. The Rotorua Museum offers a relaxing explanation of the areas explosive history, while the Agroadventures Adventure Park will have your heart racing with a bungy, a jetboat, a swoop swing and more. There really is no shortage of things to do in Rotorua, so take your time and mix up the experiences with serene attractions such as the spas and museums, as well as the adrenalin-pumping experiences such as the luge and adventure park!
Before you arrive in Taupo, make a stop at the Huka Falls. They are the most-visited natural attraction in the country and you’ll understand why as soon as you arrive - more than 220,000 litres of water rip across the falls every second (which is enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools). You can take an hour-long walk to get to the falls or park close and take a look. If you’re keen to get even closer, jet boat tours are available to bring you as close to the falls as is safe!
Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, with a perimeter of roughly 193 kilometres, and a deepest point at around 186 metres. It’s the result of a massive volcanic eruption that shook the skies roughly 26,500 years ago - and is still the largest eruption on the planet from the last 70,000 years. Fortunately, the volcanic activity has died down to almost nothingness, and is now considered dormant. In its place now lies a town abundant with exciting adventure opportunities. Naturally, the lake itself is a major attraction, as you can swim, fish, kayak, and boat on the lake, and there are many options for guided tours to teach your more about the area and show you the hidden gems of this massive water feature. For example, you can only access the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay by water, and there are a number of coves and bays to check out on tours. The perimeter of Lake Taupo offers a fantastic walking track, but you could instead opt to drive around for marvellous views and scenery. Similarly, the rest of Taupo and the surrounding area is essentially one big outdoor playground - there are more hikes than you can shake a walking stick at, it’s a mountain biker’s capital, and the gardens such as those at Taupo Museum are simply gorgeous.
When you tear yourselves away from Taupo, head south to the Tongariro National Park.